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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Churches use religious marketing to draw young members

A religious billboard is seen Wednesday in downtown Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)

One billboard stands out among the rest on the elevated train tracks at Post Street downtown: It features a young woman holding a cellphone and looking toward the sky. It reads, “Have you tweeted Jesus lately?”

Pictures of other young faces on dozens of billboards around the city feature messages such as “Jesus – the call that never drops” or “Jesus – you’re on his mind.”

The Upper Columbia Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, which serves more than 130 churches in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Eastern Oregon, is responsible for the billboards. They appear only in the Spokane area.

While church leaders hesitate to call it a marketing strategy, it is at least an attempt to appeal to a generation that uses social media for the bulk of its communication. This kind of advertising for religious organizations is becoming more common not just in Spokane but around the nation. With younger generations increasingly losing their faith, churches of different denominations are turning toward marketing strategies that resemble the advertising of consumer goods.

The website for the Spokane Adventist Church is listed on the bottom of the Spokane billboards. A person visiting that website meets the same young faces and messages. The site says, “Jesus sees past the wall of ‘tweets’ and looks at you as you are.” It also includes a lookup function to find the nearest Adventist church.

Jay Wintermeyer, communications director for the Upper Columbia Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, said the campaign is an effort to spread a message that God cares and wants to “have a conversation with us.”

“We tried to put that into terms that would resonate with today’s audiences,” Wintermeyer said. “I think the way we communicate has shifted, because of how people interact today. It’s much more centered around social media, and so that is playing a larger role than it has in years past.”

A 2012 Pew Research survey found one-third of adults younger than 30 do not affiliate with any religion. The percentage of all U.S. adults who don’t identify with any religion grew from 15 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2012.

Mara Einstein, a professor of media studies at Queens College in New York, said in a phone interview, “There’s been a bit of a blur in the culture as to what we define as sacred and what we define as secular.” Einstein wrote a book called “Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age,” which examines how religion is affected by advertising and how it competes with a consumer culture.

She said religious marketing, mostly from “megachurches,” not only uses strategies similar to consumer marketing, but the opposite is also true. Advertisers have tried to make consumers become “religious users” of their product, she said, because once they identify with a product they will spread their allegiance to their friends and family. And with social media in the mix, word-of-mouth marketing becomes even easier, she said.

One problem churches have run into recently is that they no longer have a “built-in audience,” she said, meaning younger generations are not growing up going to church with their parents.

In order for churches to compete with other leisure-time activities, they must have a compelling message, Einstein said. She said at least one church created an app to watch a live or recorded service.

Most of the marketing Einstein focused on was from Protestants, but Mormons are also “incredibly good marketers,” she said.

At one point, if a person typed “church” into Google, Mormon websites would pop up before any others because they had intentionally created so many different websites in order to push them up on the search page, she said.

Institutions also are reaching out to young people at public events, like the Spokane Interstate Fair.

Tom Stradling worked at a booth where people could take a two-question test about whether they’re going to heaven.

Stradling has been in charge of the booth at the fair for the past 13 years. He said he is loosely affiliated with GodMobile, a ministry based in Beaverton, Oregon, that began traveling with the test on the west side of Washington and Oregon.

The query appeals to a person’s natural desire to know their own destiny, Stradling said. Once someone takes it, the person manning the booth will engage in conversation and try to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ, he said. If the person is receptive, they direct them to an evangelical church nearby.

Wintermeyer, with the Adventist Church, said the church has experienced growth as a result of a previous billboard campaign a year ago, although he declined to be specific. He believes the advertising campaign has been successful in spreading the word of God.

“The Spokane churches here want our community to know that they are valuable to God, and this is one way we’re trying to share that,” Wintermeyer said.